Love and connection are fundamental human needs. And generally speaking, when needs go unmet, bad shit happens. Children must feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure in order to develop appropriately. These are the basic attachment needs we are all born with. But when these needs are not attended to, we experience overwhelming feelings of powerlessness and adapt for survival.
Holy fuck, my parents are completely unreliable! (Or abusive, neglectful, incompetent, or whatever.)
Unmet attachment needs feel life-threatening and trigger a physiological stress response. We call this a traumatic experience because it rewires our nervous system and permanently alters our internal landscape. And thus, the unmet needs of early life become the blueprint for all human relationships, including the one with ourselves. This is the foundation of attachment theory.
Let’s say you could never do anything good enough for your parents. You brought home an A and they asked about the A+. You brought home the A+ and they went through your work and found mistakes. Over time, this completely fucking destroys your self-worth; then trying to “earn love” through performance and impossible standards becomes your default setting.
Naturally, you become a valedictorian, millionaire, brain surgeon, gold medal olympian, underwear model, but you still don’t know what it feels like to be loved and accepted for who you are, not what you do. So you recreate what’s familiar to you in a long string of shitty relationships with people who are constitutionally incapable of meeting your needs for acceptance, appreciation, and validation.
Or perhaps your parents abandoned you — physically, emotionally, or both. You felt deeply unworthy and learned to suppress your feelings and needs because nobody gave a single shit about you. Yet your insatiable desire for human connection makes you a codependent, people-pleaser, over-apologizing martyr of some sort — willing to settle for any scraps of attention thrown your way.
You find yourself in an endless procession of unsatisfying relationships with bummy-ass partners who are objectively terrible. Maybe you recognize their glaring faults but just believe deep down that you’re not deserving or capable of anything better. Or you think you stand a better chance of not being abandoned again if you only date losers.
These are wildly specific hypotheticals — not intended to be your dead ringer. The point is that, in any one of innumerable cases, unresolved childhood trauma is the driving force behind a lifetime of failed relationships.
The Body Keeps The Score
I won’t bore you with the neuroscience of it all, but trauma is literally trapped in our bodies. What happened to us, what didn’t happen because we were powerless at the time, and how we adapted to survive (trauma response) — these three components are wired into us. To illustrate:
What happened? Your family moved a bajillion times and you never attended the same school longer than six months.
What didn’t happen? You never made deep friendships, felt like you belonged, or cultivated your authentic self within a peer group.
How’d you adapt? You became a people-pleaser or a social chameleon and abandoned yourself, doing pretty much anything for a shred of connection.
Now, how do you suppose someone like this is gonna show up in romantic relationships? Their whole social playbook was built on the inauthentic, microwave relationship skills they needed to make fast connections in the absence of a stable home life.
People tend to employ their adaptations on autopilot until both pain and awareness become great enough to inspire an intervention on their nervous system. Resolving trauma looks like finally doing the thing that didn’t happen (instead of our adaptation) to let our inner child know that the war is over and we don’t have to survive anymore.
This can be extremely challenging work and I recommend finding a competent therapist, coach, or mentor of some sort to help you in the reparenting process.
Feeling at Home in a Shit Storm
I once wrote that “Dysfunctional relationships are home to our wounded parts; it’s where they came from and where they always return.” What I meant is that relational trauma wires the nervous system to operate in a hostile environment. We adapt out of necessity to make a terrible situation tolerable. It’s a useful survival mechanism when we’re helpless and living with chronically unmet needs.
However, the problem is that trauma makes shitty relationships feel like our natural habitat. We become attracted to them because they literally feel like home. This is the long and short of Broken Picker Syndrome. Every insecure attachment style is a direct result of some relational trauma during our formative years that made us uniquely adept at recreating the same trauma with new partners.
People mistake their trauma response for their personality more often than not. They say stuff like, “I’m just attracted to emotionally unavailable partners,” as if they were born that way or something.
No one thinks immature shit-heels who can’t meet their needs are sexy. It’s more likely that one or both of their parents were emotionally unavailable, depriving them of the irreducible human needs for love and connection throughout their most critical years of identity formation, leaving a throbbing, insatiable hunger to be loved by someone who matches the emotional profile of the parent who never did.
The naive delusion that someone who could never love you will one day love you is called “the healing fantasy,” and people chase that shit to the gates of insanity and death. It’s fucking astonishing.
What To Do About It
Step one is to find out if you’ve got some unresolved trauma in your carry-on luggage. Obviously, a therapist can help with that, but you can also take my relationship quiz or the Adverse Childhood Experience quiz and dig up some gnarly truth about yourself in five minutes or less. It’s actually pretty rare for someone to have no trauma, so it’s probably safe to assume that you’ve got at least one bone in the closet.
Next, get real clear on 1) what happened, 2) what didn’t happen, and 3) how you adapted. It’s not uncommon to have multiple traumas, but try to pick out the grizzliest one you got and just focus on that one for starters.
For instance, 1) You were gaslit and chronically invalidated by your parents, 2) You never felt seen, heard, or valued, and 3) You learned to suppress the shit out of your feelings, thoughts, wants, and needs because it was never safe to have those things as a child.
You may notice that your adaptation is present in most or all areas of your life, including your romantic relationships.
You are now faced with two options: continue operating on autopilot, allowing what feels right to your damaged nervous system to run your life, OR make a conscious decision to replace your adaptations with healthy, empowering patterns of behavior, whether you like it or not.
In other words, you have to choose between doing your adaptation or learning to do the thing you couldn’t do during some terrifying, past experience. This is the choice between surviving and actually living; between trauma response and healing.
Why Is It So Hard?
Most people are remarkably talented at their adaptation and painfully inept at the other thing. Naturally, people tend to do things they’re good at and avoid things they aren’t. This is exactly why people stay stuck in the revolving door of their triggers, bad habits, and trauma responses.
Somewhere along the way, a part of you came to believe that relationships aren’t safe and people can’t be trusted. That very well may have been factually accurate at one time. But it’s not globally true.
Presently, you will find one of two things. Either you are still surrounded by unsafe assholes for some reason, or you’re just not willing to risk vulnerable, authentic connection again, so you project fear and mistrust onto everyone around you. In both cases, there is much that you can do about it.
I highly recommend working with a trauma-informed therapist or coach. Relational trauma must be healed relationally. It’s not really something you can figure out all by yourself.
Then and only then will you have the power to mindfully engage in a healthy and loving relationship with an equal partner who isn’t simply a reflection of some aspect of your unhealed past.
Remember, healthy starts with “heal.”